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In Defense Of Louisiana’s Magic

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Maybe it was when, in the fifth grade, I visited the Evangeline Oak in St. Martinville. Or maybe it was before that, when my parents took us to Natchitoches, and we stood on a balcony overlooking Cane River and watched the moment a switch was flipped and the entire town became awash in elaborate Christmas lights. Or perhaps it happened during the weekends I spent as a kid on the grounds of an old plantation outside of Cheneyville. Or sometime during the trips my mother and I would make down to the Children’s Hospital in New Orleans, how the whole place seemed musical to me; even the street signs read like song lyrics. It also could have happened in the seventh grade, when my classmates and I drove down to Cocodrie and spent a weekend exploring the surreal landscape of the marshland. Or the countless times we stopped into a rickety old restaurant in Livonia and ate, what was to me, the best food in the world. More than likely, it’s something I’ve always understood on some level, even before I could articulate it: I grew up in a place that seemed, at times, capable of being truly and unexpectedly magical.

This is not to suggest that other places in the world are not equally as capable, and it’s not to overlook all of the bad in Louisiana: We’re poor; our politicians have always seemed to care more about themselves than the public they serve; we still struggle with myopic racism and historical denialism. We’ve become increasingly infected by self-righteous religious charlatans, and we’ve been repeatedly victimized by Christian dominionists, people who mask their intolerance for others by arguing that they are somehow the victims of persecution.

But, although it may be easy, don’t confuse the absurdities and failures of our politics and the extremism of those on the religious right with our culture.

On Tuesday, Dave Thier, a freelance writer based in New Orleans, published a piece in Esquire titled “Sorry, Louisiana Is Not Actually Made Of Magic.” I really wanted to like Mr. Thier’s piece, because I thought the headline was provocative. But the article was absurdly patronizing and completely disconnected. Mr. Thier is a Yale graduate who has lived in New Orleans for only three years. While we should all celebrate smart, young, educated professionals who move to Louisiana, it is unwise, arrogant, and misguided for a self-described “transplant” to hold himself out, to a national audience, as a curator of Louisiana culture, particularly when he implies that his understanding of his newly-adopted home has been informed by Hollywood.

Indeed, that seems to be the point of his article: Hollywood has lied about Louisiana being magical, which he can prove by way of juxtaposing the banalities of his own life. He watches Netflix and plays video games and prefers Thai take-out over the native cuisine of his adopted Louisiana. And this, I think, may bolster Mr. Thier’s argument that he’s just an ordinary American in his late twenties. But it completely destroys his credibility when it comes to opining on the culture and, yes, the magic of Louisiana.

Guess what? Hollywood lies about the magic of Los Angeles far more frequently than it does about Louisiana.

Maybe I’m being a little rough on Mr. Thier. After all, he does say some nice things about Louisiana, and in fairness to him, us Louisianians are notoriously protective over our culture. To be sure, his article for Esquire wasn’t nearly as obnoxious as a recent piece published in The New York Times.

But there’s a good reason we’re protective. We recognize our own vulnerability and fragility. We fear homogenization; we resent anything that resembles Disneyfication. We know what we possess is special and unique, and we don’t want it to become a part of a tour guided by some kid from Massachusetts whose most vehement defense of Louisiana is the suggestion that the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is nothing more than “Southern Orientalism” or that the HBO show “True Detective” overly romanticized the Lake Charles area. Perhaps that sounds smart, but it’s sloppy and condescending and inaccurate.

Either way, though, Hollywood has nothing to do with the magic of Louisiana culture. You can’t learn about the magic on the silver screen or by paying for a Netflix subscription. It’s something that you have to experience, over and over again, in real life, before you can even begin to make sense of it, much less before you can really write about it.

49 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul #

    Thank you, Lamar. I am at the point of no longer reading articles by out of towners/transplants about N.O./La, whether they seek to praise or criticize it. The pieces come across as superficial, regardless as their viewpoint; i.e., kale, unhinged, or the nonsensical ruminations of a three year newbie. Please keep up the great work with your blog.

    March 13, 2014
  2. ” we resent anything that resembles Disneyfication” – LOVE this and to think that Walt Disney looked at building Disney World across the lake in Covington/Mandeville – So thankful he didn’t or we would just be another Florida.

    March 13, 2014
  3. Brandin #

    Yes, and yes! Great rebuttal. You put into words what us less-articulate readers were thinking after reading Mr, Thier’s column. Thank you!

    March 13, 2014
  4. No Lamar, you’re not being too hard on Thier.

    “Here is my life in the most magical city in the world: I watch a tremendous lot of Netflix. I play a tremendous lot of video games. I eat red beans and rice occasionally, but Pad Thai much more frequently.”

    That says all that needs to be said, not about Louisiana and NO and whether they’re magical, but about late twenty-something Dave Thier. Are late twenty-somethings all that dull and pedestrian? There are good Thai restaurants in NO, but to regularly eat Thai take-out when you want a meal you don’t have to cook is truly amazing. And you don’t have to spend big bucks or eat fast food. Many off the tourist track neighborhood eateries serve up excellent meals at quite reasonable prices. I doubt whether Thier would feel the magic of any place he lived. He just ain’t a magic kind of guy.

    March 13, 2014
    • Oh Mr. Thier. Hie thee back to the northern regions. What Nola and the state have to offer, you’re apparently not interested in.

      March 14, 2014
  5. Chana #

    I think Mr. Thier’s article says more about the lack of magic in his own spirit than in ours. He says, “I watch a tremendous lot of Netflix. I play a tremendous lot of video games…..” What a sad, sad lack of spirit and imagination in his life.

    I’m so sorry that he’s not able to see the joy and spirit and, yes, magic that sings and rises from the streets of this city. My husband, a NOLA native has always said there are some people born here or not that have the New Orleans gene in their body. That gene calls them to come home to New Orleans and to stay here and celebrate. It may take them years to get here, but once they come, they don’t leave. I’m one of those people…I dreamed of New Orleans when I was a teenager in the 60s and I finally got here in the 80s. And here I shall stay.

    March 13, 2014
    • Claudia #

      I totally agree with your husband! I love when people visit me and right away the special ones who have the gene inside of them allow it to come out and it’s like seeing New Orleans/louisiana through a child’s eye. It’s like watching a kid open a present on Christmas morning.

      March 15, 2014
  6. daniel smith #

    beautifully written, Lamar, from the first sentence to the last

    March 13, 2014
    • Thanks buddy.

      March 14, 2014
  7. R. Dixey #

    You either get New Orleans or you don’t. It doesn’t have much to do with how long you’ve lived here. I know people who are N.O.-born-and-raised and bitch constantly about the city, and I’ve met new citizens who just can’t get enough. Like Tennesse Williams once said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

    March 13, 2014
  8. Ginger K. #

    I have not been able to find good Thai food in New Orleans, and god knows I’ve tried!

    March 14, 2014
    • nonyabizz #

      For decent Thai, you need to go to Baton Rouge. Yeah, those things say more about him than they do New Orleans.

      March 14, 2014
  9. Michael Smith #

    Thanks Lamar. I still don’t have a Netflix account, partly because I can walk to Bayou St John or ride a bike to the Mississippi River to enjoy the beauty and magic of where water meets land. Also I am cheapskate.

    Thanks for continuing to write, please don’t stop.

    Oh, and Sukho Thai on Royal in the Marigny is quite good. Drunken noodles are better than the Pad Thai though.

    March 14, 2014
  10. Phil #

    I liked most of the article. I liked most of your article. You made some good points. I’m not sure why you had to take a swipe at religion though. Your comments do not reflect my interactions with religion at all, and much of Louisiana culture comes from religion. Louisiana is much more diverse than close-minded, leftist atheists. Pitting Louisianians against each other doesn’t advance this article in the least. You may have an agenda, and it is fine to discuss your thoughts and feelings. It just doesn’t fit in this article, as it has nothing to do with the topic. Your diatribe against religion could (and should) be a seperate article entirely. Including it in this piece just muddy’s the water and creates division where none should exist on this topic. Other than the detour into religion, the article was very good.

    The writer of the Esquire piece equates geography with expertise. He lives in Louisiana but has remained detached. Not sure how that makes him an authority on Louisiana.

    March 14, 2014
    • “Your comments do not reflect my interactions with religion at all.”

      I apologize for not being able to adequately express your opinion. I got carried away expressing my own.

      March 15, 2014
      • Lamar,

        Fair enough, but (at least to me) it comes off like this: “Contrary to what Thier says, Louisiana’s culture is amazing and exceptional, but let’s not forget that I’m a liberal and I generally hate the politics and religion here.”

        March 16, 2014
        • Oh, Owen. Hahaha.

          March 16, 2014
  11. Well, True Detective is about Acadiana, not the Lake Charles area, but I see your point. Actually, that was the big problem for me. It was a great program, but it was tonally wrong, depicting a Vermilion Parish I didn’t recognize, despite having grown up there from my adolescence forward. I think my facebook friends (at this point) are probably a bit fatigued by my rants about this and an even worse offender, American Horror Story. True Detective was written by a Louisiana native. So why did a show about religion in Southwest Louisiana include not one Catholic character or even one mention of Catholicism? (The writer is himself Catholic.) I’m not even Catholic anymore, myself, so this isn’t a personal ax grinding. I just wish I could see a more real, more authentic Louisiana portrayed.

    March 14, 2014
    • I’m good friends with the writer of “True Detective;” I know his entire family, actually. I think it’d be news to him that he’s a Catholic or that the show only depicted Acadiana and not the Lake Charles area. But whatever.

      March 15, 2014
    • sperles504 #

      Jamie, some of True Detectives was shot in the New Orleans area that may be why you did not recognize it as Vermillion Parish.

      March 15, 2014
  12. Jamie C #

    It saddens that Mr. Thier is presenting himself as the face of the Louisiana transplant, and in doing so poorly representing us as a whole. I lived in Louisiana for 5 years and fell in love with within the first few months. I too *gasp* watched Netflix and did other normal boring things while living in Louisiana, but those were not the things that defined my life there. Brass bands on Frenchmen Street, visiting a friend’s family sugar cane plantation, the Rice Festival, the Oyster Festival, Saturdays at Tiger Stadium, crawfish boils, these are the things I remember best and miss most about my life in Louisiana. If Mr. Their cannot see the sparks of magic woven into Louisiana’s culture now, I fear he never will, but I myself miss and appreciate it more than ever now that I have been transplanted from it.

    March 14, 2014
  13. I love and agree with your post. Louisiana is a magical place and not everyone understands it’s magic.

    March 14, 2014
  14. While I would also like to recognize a rampant alcoholic nature and dilapidated infrastructure as additional negatives to Louisiana, it has it’s own beauty in sunsets, open skies, mystifying swamps, unique ecosystems and diverse landscape areas. There’s nothing quite like thinking about drinking coffee milk with your coon ass grandma on the porch as the sun comes up.

    March 14, 2014
  15. Mark #

    People from LA are so house proud. Don’t be so butt-hurt when someone doesn’t like your state or city, it makes the person criticizing look right.

    March 14, 2014
    • Chana #

      Not really, Mark. It just gives us a chance to articulate how much we love this incredible place. We don’t care if you don’t like our home. You don’t have to come here…but if you do, please be as gracious and open to the experience as we will be to you. Dance to our music, eat our food, enjoy our neighborhoods and our people and come back with a smile on your face.

      March 14, 2014
      • Mark #

        Maybe you should practice the graciousness you preach and not to presume things you don’t know. I’m a Louisiana native, so please don’t patronize me or speak to me like I’m a foreigner. Hmmm, I wonder if encounters such as this colored Mr. Their’s view of Louisiana…

        March 14, 2014
    • Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

      March 15, 2014
  16. Reblogged this on Danielle Kelley.

    March 14, 2014
  17. Although born in Arkansas, I fell in love with Louisiana before I was three (3) years old and knew that I would eventually live here. As the daughter of a Railroad man, we made many trips to Nrw Orleans. I was.always mesmerized by the aroma of coffee being roasted, the brackish smell of the wetlands, the use of shells instead of gravel, the exotic smell of fruits and vegetables, which had been brought in to the Port of New Orleans on the street stands on Tchoupitoulas near Canal Street.
    I remember the street cars that for seven (7) cents you could ride; the doll shop next to Brennans snd the French farmer’s market, e
    Ehere various languages were spoken, ah, yes, I remember Louisiana’s magic well. I have lived in Louisiana for forty (40) and though as an adult, I see Louisiana for who she is, a state rich with resouces beginning with her people, but a people who have been conditioned to a negative self image about their Louisiana and to accept corruption and a lack of accountability from the elected government officials. From the waters of the Gulf, the pageantry of Louisisna history (both the good and the evil), to the trapestry of her lands from wetlands to piney woods, I only wish that people could see Louisisna through my eyes for the magnificent magicsl state that she is and require that our leadership use due diligence in performing their duties.

    March 14, 2014
  18. Patrick Donovan #

    I was there for the first time in 1964 when I was 17. It took about 15 minutes for the magic to grab ahold of me, and it’s never let go. I don’t pretend to “know” Louisiana, but I’ve always loved it.

    March 14, 2014
  19. Oh My ! Netflix and video games when you could be out and about and seeing so much??? You Mister Thier are a GRUMPUS….some one who will become old and grumpy way before your time……the things you could be doing to learn about your environment…the things you could see and smell….that is why Louisiana is magical……..It starts with the architecture, then the people..who never meet a stranger, and then the food, the festivals…….. you have to get out and be a part of it to understand it…..Lamar thank you for your opinion and article.

    March 15, 2014
  20. Well said! Those of us who have lived here all of our lives know magic. For example, we know how magically accents change when you drive from Houma to Chalmette, from Baton Rouge to Pierre Part. Sugar cane grows in southern parishes, but magically – cotton grows in the northern parishes. How about the magic of oysters but only in the months with an “r”? Then there are the religions not completely constrained to Sundays – the trinity we all keep on hand to start our gumbo, LSU football and baseball, and the New Orleans Saints holy rise to a championship. I wonder if Mr. Their knows what we thought when we read his article? We all said, “Idiot.”, and started a pot of rice. *we Louisianaians.

    March 15, 2014
  21. Brian B. #

    I’m aLouisiana native, lived here all my life. But I’ve traveled all over the U.S. and all over the world. Yes, other places in the world are magical, yes many places have things Louisiana doesn’t. Furthermore, at times I know I can be a very uptight type A person. And therein is the problem. The magic of Louisiana, from Bourbon street to the marshes of cocodrie, to the forests and hills of north Louisiana, to the small town cotton, peach, crawfish, strawberry festivals ONLY happens when you slow down, relax, and let it wash through your entire being, heart soul,mind, and body. Then and only then will you feel the underlying magic and majesty that is Louisiana and its people. I feel sorry for anyone who can’t make that mental shift and feel the vibrant undercurrent running through this great state.

    March 15, 2014
  22. Stephen Caplan #

    Well said. I grew up in Alexandria, but have lived in Las Vegas for over 20 years. So now I get fed up with media portralyals of both Las Vegas and Louisiana! Louisiana’s unique magic is fully sensory—sounds, sights, smells, tastes and emotions, all mixed with humidity.

    March 15, 2014
  23. Once past Lafayette, even the drive on I-10 to New Orleans offers so much natural beauty and wonder. The juxtaposition of petrochemical refinery and lush estuarine environment itself boggles the mind – gorgeous, backward, old, new, unique, poor and rich all at once. America truly cannot live without the state, in many many ways, so it is truly magical in that regard.

    Yet, I hate that word “magical” because it connotes mysticism and minstrelsy where they don’t exist. Louisiana is not the Magic Kingdom, to extend your Disneyfication metaphor, and we know how much magic Disney’s theme parks are truly made of. I’ve had it with popular movies and shows set in New York and L.A. as if that is real and all else is scenery. Any of those silly Kate Hudson, Jennifer Lopez, Seth Rogen movies could be set in Louisiana, Wisconsin or North Carolina because these places are ultimately banal, too, for the most part. People live, love, work and die there just like everyone else. Like a film’s music and costumes move the plot along, location has come to perform the same function, and it has now been programmed into the movie-watching brain that Louisiana means “minstrely magical bayou voodoo gumbo” and Wisconsin or the midwest is used for anything that requires rural, slow and simple-minded. This takes away from the realness of the people who live there, who like I said are just as boring and valid as people in places that Hollywood deems normal and important.

    In essence, why I prefer we stop using “magical” to describe Louisiana is the same reason I as an Indian-American hate being described as “exotic.” We’re both way past arriving and we know who we are, thank you very much.

    March 16, 2014
    • Well said, Maitri.

      March 17, 2014
  24. Amanda #

    Believe it or not, Louisiana isn’t just New Orleans. Every part of this state has something to offer that is unique to Louisiana alone. It would be impossible to find magic anywhere if all your time is spent in an apartment playing video games, watching Netflix, and ordering takeout.

    March 17, 2014
    • Chana #

      You are so right Amanda. I’ve lived 5 years in bayou country and celebrated with the friendliest people I know at country mardi gras parades, the blessing of the fleets, moss draped trees and old plantation homes. Then I moved to my dream place of New Orleans and every day is new and more beautiful than the last. But you do have to turn off the tv to see it.

      March 17, 2014
  25. I lived in Louisiana for 4 years, and I agree with everything in this post. Well done.

    March 17, 2014
  26. Mark Couhig #

    A nice piece overall, with the notable exception of the now standard Christian bashing, a kind of shorthand that quickly establishes the half-baked intellectual bona fides of anyone hoping to appeal to the mass audience of half-baked intellectuals.
    Wrong and wrong and wrong again, as anyone with a knowledge of Louisiana’s 20th century history would tell you.
    But it is, as is often quite correctly noted, the last acceptable bigotry. That’s why bigots so enthusiastically seize on it.

    March 18, 2014
    • I am not bashing Christians. That’s absurd and plainly false.

      I’m critical of religious radicals and dominionists- whether they’re Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Scientologists, etc., etc., etc.

      And anyone with knowledge of Louisiana’s 20th and 21st century history would tell you that our politics has been, too often, dominated by those who seek to codify their personal religious beliefs. Right now, our legislature is considering not one, but two different “creationism in the science classroom” laws. We are considering adopting the Bible as our official state book. Last year, there was a proposal to allow public schools to begin each day with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

      Yes, our politics have been too consumed by Christian dominionists, but there’s nothing bigoted about pointing this out. No one is persecuting you.

      There’s nothing quite like a person who wants to write his own religious beliefs into law arguing that anyone critical of his agenda is a “Christian bashing” “bigot.” That takes a special kind of myopia and hubris.

      I’m not a bigot for opposing elected officials who disrespect the Constitution of the United States. And, again, I’m not “bashing” Christians; I’m supporting and defending the fundamental rights that ensure all Americans, both religious and not religious, live in a robust democracy, not a theocracy.

      March 18, 2014
  27. GRushing #

    How many times can I hit the thumbs up button? There is something profoundly sad about one who will not see. Something frightening about folks who believe their beliefs can’t stand a little scrutiny . Thank God we aren’t all in lock- step.

    March 19, 2014
  28. Randy Boudreaux #

    They are not quite parallel, but are you for continuing the massive post K experiment of choice/charters in N.O.? Should we go back to the old public neighborhood school model? Aren’t the results of this experiment with choice very positive? If it worked here, might it work in NYC? If choice is working here, could adding even more choices be even more effective?

    March 20, 2014
    • GRushing #

      You want find many who would disagree that what has happened in New Orleans has been more positive than what existed before Katrina. The problem with the old schools was the school boards were made up of people who didn’t have a clue about educations and by administrators who were corrupt. I still believe, after having lived in 7 different states and a parish in La. that has very good schools that the problem in New Orleans could have been solved long ago with a different structure. Some of the Charters in New Orleans have been very successful, some not so much. I have no problem with Charters as long as they operate under the same guidelines and carry the same performance standards as Public Schools. Also it would be nice if they had to take some of the special needs students as well. University operated Charters, overseen by educators is very different from giving vouchers to religious schools who don’t even teach science and who have never been held to any standards and who are failing. Many of these so-called schools are much worse than the public schools and a lot of parents are finding out that their children have wasted yet another year. We need to fix public education, not kill it. When the administration of this state does not believe in public education, even though he is the product of it, you don’t have a prayer of fixing it. Just like the affordable Mental Health facilities once operated by the state are vanishing, so is public education in Louisiana. We will not attract the best and the brightest teachers by continuing to pay them squat and treat them like 2nd class citizens. We need pre-K and expanded Head Start and we need to ensure that poor people can afford to have quality day care for their children when they are lucky enough to find a job. What are we going to have if we let a generation of kids grow up believing the world is 6000 years old? Besides, after Katrina it was much faster to get the smaller Charters up and running than it would have been to replace decades old schools that were falling down to begin with. New Orleans Charters are not comparable to Jindal’s voucher scheme. Big, big difference. When Charters opened in New Orleans, most of the Public Schools were gone. Charters helped people get back home.

      March 20, 2014
  29. R.N. Pippin #

    One of the reviews above note that the folk of Louisiana do not like the Disneyification in our state. I was born in Baton Rouge, I attended college in Louisiana. I left Louisiana for approximately 6 years. I returned to Louisiana as I found employment in Natchitoches. My family and I have lived in Natchitoches for 38 years. What was once a beautiful, quiet southern town, is now 95% Disneyfied. We have lamp posts and street signs that are reminiscent of what you might find in New Orleans. Shops in the historic district have “neon” signs. The tour guides genrally do not know what they are talking about. Fortunate for Natchitoches and for some tourist there is one tour guide who is in the position of knowing the geological and cultural development of this area. She is an amazing Lady. As for the “French-ness” of Natchitoches, that to is contrived. It’s great for tourism, but it is a lie. As for this pleasant village, various government officials have “re-built” Natchitoches that scarcely represents it’s uniqueness. A caveat for potential retiree’s to this once beautiful and pleasant place, beware. Please remember I am a native of Louisiana as is my wife who was born at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans.

    March 21, 2014
    • Jill #

      Dr Pippin,

      I was born in Natchitoches Parish Hospital in 1975, went to all public parish schools, and attended NSU. (I also was a student of yours once.) I completely agree about the Disneyfication of Natchitoches. My parents still live there and, when I do visit, I barely leave their house because I can not stand to drive around my hometown and not know anything about anywhere.

      May 2, 2014
  30. GRushng #

    I think it’s still a lovely town, I visit my Grandson there at the University, however it does seems a little contrived. I was raised in Madisonville my first 12 years and now I live nearby. What a mess they have made of that once small town. The riverfront has been destroyed with the view of McMansions across the river and now an awful multi-tiered boat storage facility that is so out of place, it defies words. How any community could allow this to happen is beyond me. It makes me cry to see it there. I visit relatives in Maine each year and am amazed at the way they are able to hold onto the integrity of their small communities and still remain viable centers of commerce. OF course they are not giving away the land or taxes to developers as they do here. Here on the Northshore , we have been sold to the highest bidder with no concern for the damages left behind. Flooding, overcrowding of schools, new roads that are overcrowded before they are even built, and traffic, traffic, traffic, and wetlands destruction. All so the Parish can collect more taxes and a few can become rich. What a shame.

    March 21, 2014
  31. Tom R #

    You can’t appreciate the magic unless you grew up with it. I had to leave in my early twenties to secure work, and am in my sixties now, but I miss NOLA as if I left yesterday. I return often, and still eat at Mandina’s, Felix’s, Smiley’s, and Manale’s, amongst others. They’re like security blankets to me.

    If he finds the need to eat take out Thai as often as he says, he should go back to Yale and teach cuisine there. He might earn an audience more adapted to his “taste.”

    March 29, 2014
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